PORTLAND – The 30th anniversary Martin Luther King Jr. celebration Sunday was marked by sadness and outrage over Gov. Paul LePage’s comments last week about why he wouldn’t attend the NAACP Portland Branch’s premier annual event.

LePage made national headlines Friday when he said the NAACP could “kiss my butt” for questioning his repeated refusal to meet with the group in recent months, including invitations to the dinner in Portland and to a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Orono today.

The newly inaugurated Republican governor also called the NAACP a “special interest” and said he wouldn’t be “held hostage” by special interest groups. LePage made the comments while attending a gathering of business leaders in Sanford, then participated in an anti-abortion rally in Augusta on Saturday.

In many speeches during Sunday’s dinner, LePage wasn’t named, but references to him were clear.

“The NAACP is no special interest group,” said an emotional Rachel Talbot Ross, state director of the NAACP and president of the Portland branch. The audience of 525 people at the Holiday Inn by the Bay erupted in applause.

“For some people who aren’t sure or who are not here today,” Ross continued, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People formed in Maine in the 1920s, partly in response to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in this state against Roman Catholics and Jews.

Maine governors usually attend King Day events, alternating between programs sponsored by the Portland branch and the Greater Bangor Area NAACP.

Rabbi David Freidenreich, who lives in Portland and teaches at Colby College in Waterville, focused on the NAACP’s fight for economic justice for all.

“We’ve gathered as one because we know that economic justice is not a special interest,” Freidenreich said during his invocation. “Until we eliminate injustices within our society, none of us can truly say that we are free at last.”

Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. noted that Maine has been in the national news and praised Ross for representing the state with poise and dignity.

Mavodones lauded the NAACP’s efforts to promote justice, equality and freedom for all and said it would be a “tragedy to see its role diminished or in any way dismissed.”

Donna Loring, a leader of the Penobscot Indian Nation and a former state legislator, began her comments with a short folk tale that concluded with a punch line, “If you’re full of bull, keep your mouth shut.”

Ethan Strimling, a former Democratic legislator and executive director of LearningWorks, turned up the volume of the evening, repeating “Kiss my butt?” several times during his address and adding, “Come on, governor.”

Strimling said the governor’s comments made him sad more than anything else.

“He hasn’t got it yet,” Strimling said. “What brings us together is so much stronger than what divides us. We have to be in this together. There is only one Maine.”

Strimling said he believes LePage will attend next year, “and when he comes, I’m going to welcome him.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree introduced the keynote speaker, Wade Henderson, who is president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Henderson said Maine is at the epicenter of American politics, with Republican U.S. Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins playing a critical role in important issues facing the nation.

Before his address, he said the NAACP has an important role to play in promoting the creation of jobs for all Americans regardless of color, encouraging immigration reform that doesn’t turn newcomers into scapegoats, and helping Congress to be more effective in solving our nation’s problems.

The Portland branch recognized three local people Sunday for their contributions to civil rights: Herb Adams, former legislator; Janet Johnson, former branch president; and City Manager Joe Gray, who will retire next month. The dinner also featured musical performances and essays read by Portland students.

LePage announced through a spokesman Saturday that “he’d be willing to meet with the NAACP to discuss issues regarding all Maine people.” No meeting date has been set.

LePage’s spokesman wouldn’t specify what personal commitments kept the governor from Sunday’s dinner. LePage is scheduled to attend the funeral of a retired state trooper in Vassalboro this morning, according to his office.

The NAACP, along with other groups, is planning a march and rally on the steps of Portland City Hall this afternoon to call attention to the need for economic justice and LePage’s recent rescinding of an executive order that prohibited state workers, except for those in law enforcement, from inquiring about a person’s immigration status.

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com